Beau Brummell was not an early riser, and when finally out of bed he was in no hurry to get dressed. Instead, his toilette became a piece of performance art to which the social elite were invited. It would often take several hours, and at the end his dressing-room floor would be littered with several slightly creased and discarded cravats. It’s hardly surprising, then, that after arranging his neckwear so perfectly, he would have been keen to preserve it, like some fugitive butterfly, by impaling it on a pin.
“These items formed an essential part of any gentleman’s wardrobe from the 19th century onwards,” says Geoffrey Whitefield, formerly of jewellery auctioneers Fellows. “In the 20th century the stick pin became more commonly known as the tie pin, and the tie tack and slide also became popular as accessories for the fashion-conscious dresser.” The variety was immense: stick pins that denoted everything from sporting inclinations to political affiliations; from single pearls to myriad gems. Thus today there are “vintage examples to suit all budgets, from a few hundred pounds to a few thousand – and more for truly outstanding pieces”.
I personally have a dozen or so vintage stick pins that I use on my ties, usually when I’m wearing a waistcoat – as well as tie bars, which I wear with a two-piece suit or sports jacket. A stick pin does indeed hold the tie and knot in place, but I wear them purely for their decorative value: a small coral head of someone who could be Dante; a sapphire and emerald pin I wear for race meetings and weddings; and a rather complicated design topped by an eagle fighting a pretty nasty-looking snake.
“Stick pins are a microcosm of jewellery design; everything that goes into the grandest jewellery is distilled into these minute objects,” enthuses Geoffrey Munn, managing director of London jeweller Wartski, whose stock spans the golden age of stick-pin design, from a c1885 gold lizard pin (£2,200) by French master Paul Robin to a 1920s art deco one (£14,500) by Cartier, with gold conjoined hands ringed by diamonds and sapphires. He also recently sold a c1900 diamond-set French bulldog pin (£4,500) by Tiffany & Co.
Most of the famous jewellery marques made tie pins, says Munn. “But whereas prices for jewellery signed by a major name have soared in the past decade, tie pin prices have risen more modestly, meaning that an important piece can be had for a relatively reasonable amount.” Wartski, for example, is famed for selling Fabergé pieces and currently has a stick pin by the renowned Russian house depicting a double-headed eagle with a ruby in its breast. “At £18,650 it’s a relatively accessible way to acquire a piece of Fabergé,” says Munn, adding that a “simple” Fabergé silver picture frame without imperial provenance will set you back around £35,000.
Of course, Fabergé is now better known for its eggs than its stick pins, and on Piccadilly Bentley & Skinner has a late-19th-century Fabergé stick pin (£14,750) depicting an egg in translucent raspberry-red enamel with a gold serpent coiled around it. “It’s an incredible piece,” says Omar Vaja, Bentley & Skinner’s director of sales, for whom the stick pin is a personal passion. “I am never seen without one. I always wear one on my lapel to dress up a suit or jacket.”
Indeed, it is on the lapel that most tie pins are worn. “Men with style wear them well,” says Sandra Cronan, a respected West End dealer in antique jewellery. “We recently sold a Tiffany one from 1900 with a wonderful black opal for £12,000, and we currently have a pavé diamond-set fox head [£2,800] with yellow diamond eyes and a pearl.” At Sotheby’s, too, tie pins are proving popular in its fine-jewellery sales, says jewellery vice president and specialist Quig Bruning. “There is an active collecting community. Tie pins by Lalique are particularly captivating,” he adds, highlighting three c1900 gold and enamel stick pins by the French jeweller and glass designer – one of which features a female nude with bat-like wings – that were sold together for $87,500 at a New York auction last December, smashing an estimate of $20,000-$30,000.
Like Lalique, much of the really exceptional work in tie pins comes from France, mostly during the second half of the 19th century, and is of museum quality. The V&A has a tie pin by Froment-Meurice showing an Amazon on horseback attacking a panther; and in Paris the Musée des Arts Décoratifs has a fabulous collection, principally from the 1870s and 80s, that once belonged to the banker Nissim de Camondo.
But for one London financier, who owns over 300 tie pins, these remarkable miniature works of the jeweller’s art are not meant to be displayed in museums, but rather worn and enjoyed. “I wear them on jacket lapels and waistcoats, and on ties for that classic look,” he says of his collection sourced from auction houses, including Fellows, and antiques fairs such as Newark in Nottinghamshire. “My favourite piece is a beautifully detailed handpainted enamel miniature portrait of a young woman.”
Someone who is not in agreement, however, is Anne-Marie Colban, who together with her brother owns Charvet on Paris’s Place Vendôme, makers of some of the world’s finest ties. When I asked her what she thought of épingles de cravate her opinion was definitive: “The view we have is that tie pins destroy our ties.”